Never forget: One woman’s mission to honour the victims of Bhopal

Binjal Shah
16th Jan 2016
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About 2.5 km from the site of one of the world’s worst environmental disasters, is located a series of interconnected rooms, one as black as the tragedy that occurred here over three decades ago. Visitors almost relive that night through a simulation as an almost tangible, poisonous nothingness creeps up on you till you feel terror and confusion. This is not the work of a designer, but a museologist, who has a flair for depicting social struggle.

The museum doesn’t boast of grand jardozi robes embellished with pearls and diamonds that are ever so resplendent braving the waves of time; it is home to tiny faded dresses, dolls, pencil cases and crutches, cowering under the burden of memory and rendered cadaverous by a deluge of tears. This cannot be the work of a mere curator. This has the touch of a storyteller who feels the pain she hears of, and can sense the nostalgia and emotion in a simpleton’s everyday articles.

This structure isn’t a memorial to bring closure to a lost battle; it is the stimulus that keeps a raw nerve alive and raging. This cannot be the work of a mere architect; this fire can only be ignited by an oral historian who knows that history is being created when she witnesses it in the pages of our present.

This is the work of Rama Lakshmi, the woman who conceptualised and catalysed the construction of the Remember Bhopal Museum, a collection of memories of those who lost their lives in the 1984 Union Carbide Disaster, also known as the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. In this heart-to-heart, we meet a woman who dons several hats, and understand why she created this memorial to the tragedy, pro-bono.

RamaLakshmi for HerStory

You are a journalist and a museologist – not a combination one stumbles across every day. What led you to museology, and how do you alternate between roles? 

Even as journalism puts food on the table, museology is the food to my soul. The Washington Post were kind enough to let me take sabbaticals, and museology was born out of one such escapade. I hated history in school, and I didn’t quite understand why, because whenever I travelled, I loved to go to museums. I realised that public history in a museum interested me, but history in a classroom did not. Museums became my vehicle to understand and engage with history and people. This undying intrigue led me to study museology.

What was your first tryst with the Union Carbide story?

My journalist role, interestingly enough, first led me to Bhopal on the 10th anniversary of the Union Carbide disaster, but the first time the conversation around the museum arose, was when I revisited the city on the 25th anniversary. The government wanted to build a memorial, but the people protested saying the government lacked the moral right to build it, as they were a part of the injustice.

That, to me, was amazing. The idea of moral right, the morality of memory, the morality of who remembers, the portal through which a memory is preserved, and the morality of the memory keeper, is a very deeply contentious subject. I told them I had a degree and an interest in social movements and that I want to help them build their own. They got excited and told me how this idea had indeed occurred to them, but in a much simpler manner. In 2004, on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, they collected objects for a small exhibition called Yaad-e-Hadsa, which stood for nine months. How they did it was beautiful, and organic. They had literally gone to homes and asked, “Koi yaad-e-nishaani hai, jo mar gaya, unki?” (Do you have something that belonged to a victim?)

Remember Bhopal 1

They did not have an academic background. They were just a part of the movement and understood the power of these objects. It came organically, with no agenda. The power of objects to tell a story and be used as witnesses to history is a very important concept in museology.

They took me to the storehouse, where I saw these things for the first time. Many of the victims lived in slums and makeshift homes, and didn’t really preserve all their things. So the things they gave out were most precious to them. Pencil boxes, school uniforms of little children who were killed; a woman gave us something that belonged to her husband, a wrist watch, another gave away a saari, which was the last gift given to her by her husband, only hours before the tragedy. She said she could never muster the strength to wear it; it was her most prized possession. One lady gave us her mangal sootra

So, did this visit act as the catalyst and inspiration, to give shape to this discontent?

There were about 20 objects – the very last tangible links to the victims. And the families chose to give them away. The things were placed next to the photographs of the victims they belonged to. They were not placed on a wall, but a long rectangular table, without any narrative. One had to walk around the table, like you walk around a sanctum sanctorum. The act of going around the table was like an homage. Looking at things hung on a wall is a western concept. This was more powerful, and meaningful.

Survivors and activists who came to see the exhibit didn’t need to be told the story. They simply had to come home and pay their respects. This is what I want to invoke with our upcoming museum, too.

As a journalist and residing in Delhi, how did you get the ball rolling?

I knew this would be the first museum of its kind that highlights a contemporary struggle. I needed to speak not just to museum experts who look at ancient history, but to the activist and survivor community. In 2009, I spoke to other activists – the very first conversation was with Chameli Devi and Rashida Begum, Satyanath Sarangi, Nityanand Jayaraman, Shalini Sharma, Rachna Dhingra, Abdul Jabbar, Namdeoji and Hafiza – all survivors and activists. I wanted to build something that weaves every other environmental movement there is like a garland, to unite against corporate injustices, compensation battles, lagging lawsuits… I wanted to bring back all stories from all over the country to Bhopal, because deep down, we’re all Bhopalis, exploited, vulnerable yet as feisty and resilient and defiant as a Bhopali. It was a twin goal. We started working on it in 2011.

Why did you feel more strongly about building a museum, as opposed to the memorial the government suggested? 

Memorials are silent sites to pay homage – an architectural ode, but museums are what tell the stories and really involve a viewer. Memorials force you to think, while museums speak AND make you think. I have always been for the latter; I am for bringing the voices behind the happenings out.

How was the project funded?

It was the survivor’s ideology to not take money from the government or corporates, as they were party to the injustice. The Remember Bhopal Trust was established to collect funds from donors and various organisations.

How was the final appearance of the museum decided?

We knew we didn’t want it to be a trauma museum, where one only hears about tragedy. Our museum must be a part of the struggle for justice, by chronicling all the landmarks in the struggle – the journey of the struggle is as important as the incident itself. This is the first museum that relies on oral history. The museum walls have reproductions of the angry graffiti splashed on the factory wall. The museum has a lot of audiological simulations. Next to the pictures on black walls – the colour chosen to recreate the darkness and terror and suffocation of the actual night – are landlines with the actual voice recordings of orphans, widows and widowers, describing that terrifying night and how they will never stop loving those they lost.

RamaLakshmi HerStory

The black room… the angry graffiti… battered objects… the voices… Does it all get too much for visitors?

Survivors get overwhelmed and weep. People who wouldn’t be your typical museum crowd would come and visit, people who have heard about us through word of mouth, who come with a sense of ownership, looking for their story. They all think of what happened to their husbands, children, aunts and uncles, and a lot of them leave after browsing the very first room.

But the second room is white and offers visual relief. We also aim to impart awareness. By explaining the loss of the compensation battle because of lack of papers and documentation, we offer advice to readers on how to avert such disasters.

Where do you hope this museum will stand, in the history of the movement?

Yaad-e-Hadsa is a reminder… a deterrent museum – saying this must never happen again, like the Holocaust museum. “No more Bhopal” is a badge we distribute. It is also a hub for activism. Other movements must do something similar. People who previously used books and films, are now looking at building museums to communicate their trauma.

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